- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2004

The contested presidential primaries are usually a series of auto-da-fes, in which the party base requires the candidates to espouse a pure party faith unencumbered by political reality. Heretics, in this process, are discarded.

The Grand Inquisitor on the Democratic side in 2004 was Howard Dean, whose early successes before the primaries enabled him to bring the tone and content of his party’s campaign to its populist left base. Class warfare and antiwar rhetoric were the standard, and his more experienced rivals were — for a time — left speechless.

By the time of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, however, Mr. Dean’s personality became the issue, and Democratic voters, sensing he was not up to the job, turned elsewhere.

Although some feel the front-loaded primaries denied John Edwards the opportunity to take advantage of his surging campaign to win the nomination, and the true moderates and centrists (Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rep. Dick Gephardt) could not persuade primary voters to pay attention to their issues, John Kerry’s war record, experience in the Senate and well-organized primary campaigns made him quickly the presumptive nominee.

A fascinating, but wholly predictable, process is now underway as Mr. Kerry, with Mr. Edwards at his side, races to the political center with the velocity of someone competing in the Olympic Games in Athens.

Mr. Kerry has been competitive in the polls with President Bush since the primary season, with most of these polls now giving the Massachusetts senator a slight edge. Conventional wisdom has it that most of the electorate has made up its mind, and that only a small percentage (about 10 percent) of voters will now decide the election. Inasmuch as these are likely to be independents who have no allegiance to either party, it is logical that Kerry strategists, mindful of Bill Clinton’s years of success in the political center, would aim their autumn campaign in that direction.

In a matter of several days and a few weeks, Mr. Kerry has embraced the war in Iraq, the principle of pre-emption that enabled it, disregarded the arguments about weapons of mass destruction and made it clear that, if elected, he will finish the job and win the war. This has left the antiwar populist base of the party rather breathless, but the Kerry assumption always has been that the intense hatred of Mr. Bush would allow this to be tolerated.

On domestic policy, Mr. Kerry has reined in the class warfare and is putting forward the language of the New Democrat center. Anticipating the charges of “the most liberal senator,” the Kerry campaign presents itself rhetorically squarely in the middle.

A few voices from the left are being heard, and more will no doubt come, suggesting that perhaps Mr. Kerry has abandoned his base. Of course, it is not his base. It was Mr. Dean’s base. But where are these voters, many millions of them at that, to go?

A familiar voice from the recent past has resurfaced in the person of Ralph Nader. Remembering 2000, Democratic Party folks have aggressively tried to block Mr. Nader from getting on the 2004 ballot in many states. Having been the scapegoat of the last election (in which it can be reasonably argued that his votes denied Al Gore the electoral votes that would have made him president), many populist and liberal Democrats no longer pay much attention to Mr. Nader. Mr. Nader is now trying another tack. He is arguing that the Democratic Party is denying him his right to be on the ballot, labeling them hypocrites on the right of free speech. It remains to be seen whether or not this gambit will work with many voters. Legal challenges lie ahead. Mr. Nader would seem to be a has-been, but if he were able to be on many state ballots — states that are close — he would be the only antiwar populist candidate available to voters.

I am hearing it said that the race in 2004 is now Mr. Kerry’s to lose. Based on the polls, evidence in the field, history and common sense, this is an absurd statement. Virtually all modern presidential elections with an incumbent in the race have been the incumbent’s to lose. Mr. Bush is, as I write this, in political trouble, but his destiny remains in his own hands (and subject to the vagaries of events). Mr. Kerry’s strategy, apparently, is to make him a comfortable and acceptable choice if American voters have decided to throw Mr. Bush out. If so, this is a sensible and responsible strategy, albeit lacking the sensational daring of a Hail Mary pass.

Considering the months of mostly unanswered battering from the Democrats, the problems in Iraq and the failure of the stock market to confirm the economic recovery, the president’s standing today is amazing. But almost three months remain before Election Day. At some point, the voters will make up their minds about whom to hire and whom to fire. This show beats Donald Trump on television any day.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1972.

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